Composing a funeral sermon can be a daunting task for any preacher, but never more so than for an accomplished person. Recently, I preached on such an occasion for an impressive man whose life was filled with laudable credentials and remarkable accomplishments. On the day of his funeral Mass and committal, the sanctuary was filled with many such persons expecting to hear the usual — eulogizing. However, the funeral Mass is never the time for eulogizing. In fact, the Lutheran Service Book Agenda defers all eulogizing to other venues. The Divine Service is the forum in which Christ speaks through His ambassador—the preacher—the Word of God in Law and Gospel. The question is: How does one preach to people otherwise so exemplary in this life when the point of their gathering is to honor one of their meritorious own?
The selection of a biblical text is crucial on such an occasion and should never be employed to exhort auditors toward moralistic behavior, but rather a sober proclamation of the fallenness and sinfulness of even the most celebrated among us and, therefore, the need of each and every person—be they never so accomplished—for a Redeemer to save them to the uttermost. Faithful pastors, then, should resist fashionable “celebrations of life” and their upbeat anthropocentric focus and, instead, boldly proclaim the truth of Christ in a forum which still garners a decorum and expectation to hear the Word of God regarding matters of life and death.
When Ron Neil Guy, Major, United States Air Force (retired), war hero and prosperous attorney, died from complications exasperated by dementia, 1 Peter 5:6-11 presented such a text for preaching the Law and Gospel, even among those who in the eyes of this world only want to “celebrate life,” especially a life well-lived.
The selection of this text was purposeful. Saint Peter, writing from Rome, addresses Christians in another part of the Roman Empire suffering because of their allegiance to Christ. Throughout this epistle you find Peter, himself in the hotbed of persecution in the city he calls “Babylon,” the veritable place of exile situated as he was on the Tiber, nonetheless offering steadfast encouragement to those undergoing persecution for professing the fact that Jesus was truly Lord of all, not Caesar, and that Jesus is the world’s rightful King who alone, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is to be worshipped as God and Savior. Any title or honor that may have been conveyed to Caesar was now heaped onto Jesus.
Not only were these Christians professing it, but they were also living it.
Sacrifices to the gods came to a halt by these Christians. And there were gods galore to attend: Household gods, family gods, city gods, tutelary gods, regional gods, a pantheon of Greco-Roman gods syncretized with Egyptian gods and, of course, on top of the entire heap of deities—at least here on earth—was the divine Caesar, Nero. Breaking a chain anywhere in that link swiftly brought troubles as the whole system was an interdependent web of obligatory superstition on which everything hinged — economics, politics, civil affairs, marital relations — everything. The Christians to whom Peter writes were not breaking a link, they tossed out the entire chain they believed kept the world in the bondage of darkness, the ignorance of superstitions and violent force that empowered it all. When the Creator-God visited humanity and reclaimed His throne over Jews and Gentiles in Jesus of Nazareth by conquering death and rising from the dead as the Lord of Life, there was no need for these newly converted Christians to smash icons. They simply left them in the dust since Christ exposed them as nothing but bits and blocks of stone anyway. Jesus was the destroyer of the gods as the only true and living God. This is what the earliest Christians believed, taught, and confessed right in the midst of their pagan culture.
And they were paying the price for it through persecutions. They were Christians; their culture was not. Their persecutions were, therefore, inevitable. They came from every domain of life: Spouse, family, employer, guild, community, and government... all the way up to those who governed in the name of Nero.
They were Christians; their culture was not. Their persecutions were, therefore, inevitable.
So, Peter writes to encourage them to remain steadfast in our holy faith:
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
At first blush, it might seem strange for this portion of Holy Scripture to be selected for the funeral of a man such as Ronald Neil Guy. It is for those who are being humbled by anxieties, who are being persecuted, those in need of encouragement. Ron needed none of those things. He was, instead, a man’s man, from a time when men were not posers with beards in urban settings, hipsters frothing cappuccinos for other spaghetti-armed wannabes. No, Ron was the rightful heir of the greatest generation that took manliness into the next generation. Principled in his Lutheran faith from his childhood – as a teenager opting for the way of Christian orthodoxy on his own – it would be the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments administer according to the Gospel for him: No compromises. In this, Ron was inflexible. He was born and baptized a Lutheran and Pennsylvanian. He would die a Lutheran and Pennsylvanian at heart. Firm in his faith, a man among boys, Ron was practically invincible, perhaps unbreakable. He had no need of a text like this, you know, for the anxious, for the persecuted, for humbled.
A native of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, he attended Lehigh University followed by 23 years of active-duty service as a military officer and Command Pilot. He flew a bewilderingly broad spectrum of aircraft, both rotor and fixed wing, props, and jets. His skill level was ridiculous, so much so that he was selected as a team member assisting the refueling operations of Apollo 16. His can-do, fearless, and patriotic disposition, coupled with his nerves of steel and acute skills and intelligence got him integrated as an officer and helicopter pilot with the United States Air Force, 20th Special Operations, Green Hornets Squadron, but you would never know it. Eight years ago, he walked into my study at Grace Lutheran Church and caught me reading Major Plastor’s riveting book, SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam and I asked him if he might know any of the guys in this book? He took it from my hands, thumb-flipped to a page in a second, shoved the open book into my chest and said, “Yeah, I knew that guy.” “Really,” I said, “who is it?” “It’s me.”
The story he flipped to was a hair-raising emergency evacuation in which his helicopter literally had to crop-cut its own landing zone. There were other verified stories as well about him getting shot down, not once, but twice and surviving. On four separate occasions he landed and sometimes belly-flopped heavy, fixed-wing military planes with malfunctioning landing gear or aircraft which were literally falling apart midair. Shrapnel and combat wounds from intense and hostile enemy fire scared his body. Lesser men faint at the thought of such things. Ron Guy chalked them up to duty and a day’s work.
This is why he was the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with seven oak clusters, two Purple Hearts, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze service stars, and Meritorious Service Medal, among others.
Since he missed the window to become an astronaut (which was a very real consideration) due to Vietnam, he deigned to become a lawyer and a successful one at that. You understand why this text just does not make sense. It is not for a man like Ron Guy, who had it all including a beautiful wife, a beloved son, a treasured daughter, as well as respect and positions of power.
No, 1 Peter 5:6-11 was not his “go to” passage, bookmarked and dog-eared in his Bible because he needed encouragement and the fortifying of his resolve to remain Christian under persecutions, to help him cope with his anxieties. Life was, on the whole, good for Ron, who was practically invincible, perhaps unbreakable.
Until persecution crept into his life in two forms: Diabetes and mental degeneration. The Vietcong could not disable him but the punishing toll of diabetes to his legs did. Lack of insulin and its complicating effects on blood circulation and, therefore, healing took a rather commonplace injury and led it down the debilitating path of multiple amputations; three, in fact. This man, who once wielded the power of mighty military aircraft, now struggling to navigate a wheelchair. Persecution also came in the form of disease. Age and incurable diabetes persecuted Ron, stealing and mocking his former invincibility.
Yet, on the whole, he bore it with comparative good cheer and optimism. He praised God, sought His Word and the strength of Holy Communion. He thrived on the fellowship of the Christian men who visited him, until more humbling came in the form of a specter none of us would have predicted — dementia. No, this was not supposed to be for a man with Ron’s acumen, his education, his intellectual ability. For a man with a robust vocabulary, he lost words, even regarding his legal profession. His personality was altered. His disposition and thinking and moods were unfamiliar, even the expression of his faith was different.
What then? It is all good and fine to speak about rational people and hear about their lively faith, but what happens when they simply are not themselves and even their faith wanes or at least seems to do so because they do not or cannot express it any longer? It is hard to tell because they are altered so much. Alzheimer’s humbles great men and women. Dementia humbles great men and women. The one we have loved becomes increasingly unrecognizable; they are not the same. What then? There are many of us who have had parents, your mother, your mother-in-law, your father, your father-in-law decline and degenerate, sometimes to the point they do not recognize you or, indeed, even themselves. What then? What happens when persecutors such as diabetes and dementia overtake and even expressions of faith are lost along with names and faces? What then?
Then, we hear 1 Peter 5 afresh and come to understand that all, all has been provided for our redemption through Jesus Christ. He saves us to the uttermost.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you... [be] firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To Him be the dominion forever and ever.”
All has been provided for our redemption through Jesus Christ. He saves us to the uttermost.
Ron was united to Christ Jesus through Holy Baptism and consciously maintained the holy faith until this persecutor prevented him by humbling him. Now, you must know, the proper time has come for God to exalt him. This He has done by collecting the soul of Ronald Neil Guy to Himself at death and thereby, instantaneously releasing him from the grip of his persecutor. Having been first enlightened by the Holy Spirit in baptism, Ron was further enlightened by the truth of God’s Word, and after a brief period of anxiety, Christ has elevated him to a place with the Saints of God where the veil of this world has been lifted with all of its limitations.
The world’s rightful King, Jesus Christ came into His world for the very purpose of reversing the power of human sin and rebellion, the debilitating effects of illness and disease which lead to death. In fact, Christ triumphed over it on the Holy Cross, emptying it of its power, and reversing its status as unconquerable by way of His glorious resurrection.
Ron suffered for a little while and faithful preachers must say that each and every one of their auditors will, too. Sickness and death are a persecution, an inevitable oppression. So, the meritorious among us must likewise humble themselves in light of the fact that each and every one of us are heading to the place of the dead where merit in this world, merit according to this world holds no standing. It means nothing outside of Christ. Only His merits and faith prove meritorious when it comes to the final persecution of death. Ron suffered for a little while, it is true, but Peter continues by saying how the God of all grace, who has called Ron to his eternal glory in Christ, will restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish. The God of all grace does this through the promise of the resurrection of our mortal bodies. All Christians who die in this holy faith will be raised from the dead. We know this to be true because Christ has been raised from the dead. As Christ is, so we shall be.
The good news is Christ Jesus is faithful to the end, even to the point of death and through death, with a steadfast and vocal faith in God our Savior for those who cannot do so in their lives any longer on account of their altered state, so that even this condition of persevering, confessing, and believing to the end of life has been fulfilled by Christ Himself. On behalf of the likes of Ron, Christ cries out from Golgotha, “Into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Preachers would do well to relate the Gospel in this respect to baptized family members who, in the end, were but a shell of their former self due to persecution by illness and degeneration. Jesus Christ can and must be placarded as able to save such loved ones to the uttermost because Christ fulfills all the conditions for redemption. Justification is always by His righteousness, His faith, His perseverance to the end, so that in the end, all who are united to Christ through the gift of faith likewise shall be raised from the dead with restored bodies and minds. Such is the tender compassion of our God. Even if we go out of the world with the childlike or even infant mentality with which we came into the world, He is there to save to the uttermost with loving kindness, removing all fear.
So, having the sting of death swallowed up, we who remain until our turn at death can abide confidently that, after a little while of suffering, the God of all grace in Christ will in fact restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish His kingdom people through the resurrection of the body.